In the first interview of a new series, Roar writer Laura Maxwell exchanges letters with a Californian prisoner to learn about his time behind bars during the Covid-19 pandemic and his broader view of the American prison system.
When the country initially went into lockdown I, like everyone else, searched desperately for things to do whilst the minutes – minutes which felt like hours – ticked away. In this search, I stumbled upon writeaprisoner.com, which allows civilians to write to currently incarcerated felons in America in the hopes of receiving a response. When I first came across this site, I was hesitant, wondering exactly how it worked and weighing up the likelihood that I would actually receive a reply. The website asserts that its goal is to connect everyday people to those serving time in jail, providing a source of comfort, distraction, or maybe even friendship.
Earlier this year, when the government-sanctioned lockdown first commenced, I took the time to try and understand the hardships these people endure. While I could never draw neat comparisons between my life in lockdown and the experience of serving years on end in prison, for the first time in my life I knew what it felt like to feel helplessly closed in, apart from people I care about and senselessly counting down the days to an undetermined end. I understood that if I was struggling with being indoors, trapped in the same four walls and dull, empty lifestyle, then what these people experience must be unimaginable.
Over the last two months, I have written to a number of prisoners across the United States, asking them questions about their criminal charging, themselves as people, and what life in prison is like day-to-day, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have offered everyone I wrote to anonymity for this article – the gentleman whose conversation I am going to disclose today gave his approval for his true identity to be released. I would also like to note that it is impossible to verify the prisoner’s account, so I am taking purely at his word. I have, however, provided current statistics that are relevant concerning American prisons and their financial infrastructure.
Kevin Payne is a 36-year-old man currently serving time in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for attempted murder and robbery.
Roar: How would you describe your time in prison thus far?
KP: Prison has its ups and downs, mostly downs. The question you ask is like asking a tiger that once thrived in the wild to describe his time being in a zoo… time here is horrible! There is so much systematic corruption within the prison system here. Convicts are treated like cattle. Prisons are one of the biggest “bread winners” or “money makers” for the United States.
As of 2019, the U.S prison system incarcerates approximately 2.3 million people. Its sheer number of prisoners has given rise to a for-profit prison system.
R: What do you find yourself doing in your spare time?
KP: …my free time mostly consists of reading self-help books, law books, psychology books, romantic comedies, as well as a good mystery novel. I work out 5 days out of the week. I speak to my family, they are my biggest supporters… I guess you can summarize my time as bettering myself mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.
R: Do you believe prisons should place more emphasis on punishment or rehabilitation?
KP: …I believe prison should focus on rehabilitation more so than punishment. I believe this should be the case specifically with violent offenders. Over in America a child molester goes to a mental health program and will be home within two years but someone who robs a store, and no one is physically hurt can get over twenty years in prison. The system is really unbalanced, however, rehabilitation is a personal journey, goal and objective… It’s something that must come from a personal desire to change after realising and accepting one’s faults.
R: Do you think there is room for improvement in the American jail system?
KP: Yes, there is always room for improvement in everything we do as humans because we are naturally imperfect… Do I have the answers for correcting those flaws? No… I do believe however that a great start would be to start with repurposing funds and directing them towards truly rehabilitating the inmates instead of building more prisons. Also, some laws need to be changed because, in many cases, the crime doesn’t fit the time.
As of 2020, 25 states in America still carry the death penalty.
R: Since the outbreak of COVID-19, how has your life in prison changed?
KP: Since the outbreak, we have been denied visits for the past four months. Initially we weren’t allowed to wear masks, only staff, so my friend and I went on a 17-day hunger strike demanding a mask. We also refused court unless we were provided with a mask. Finally, our governor made it mandatory for us to receive masks, thank God because I was getting hungry…We got write-ups and harassed for our demand of protection during this Pandemic, just another instance of injustice and corruption in our system. So yea, things changed a lot since the outbreak, not for the better or worse, just change. They do the bare minimum to protect us. I should reword that… they do the bare minimum to protect themselves from being sued.
R: How do you feel about yourself as a person in the present day?
KP: I’m not perfect, I never will be, but I do strive for and work towards becoming the best person that I can be…